Last updated on September 7th, 2017
Paris Latin Quarter walk (8 km)
From its humble beginnings as the Roman city of Lutetia, the Latin Quarter later became Paris’ student district, home to one of Europe’s medieval universities, la Sorbonne. Latin was then widely spoken, hence the Quarter’s name. Today, you can leave your Latin dictionary at home and you do not need to dig out cobble stones, used during the student riots in the May 1968, to fully enjoy this lively -and, ahem, very scholarly- district.
1. Statue de Sainte Geneviève
Sainte Geneviève is the patron saint of Paris. In the 5th century, she is said to have protected Paris from Attila the Hun’s invasion. She was buried in the Sainte-Geneviève Abbey, on the site of the present Lycée Henri IV, located on the Montagne Sainte Geneviève, or Saint Geneviève Hill. Her relics can now be found in the Church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont.
2. Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Make sure you pay a visit to Notre Dame, Paris’ grand’ dame and enjoy the parvis -the open space- in front. Fancy experiencing 2000 years of urban evolution? Descend into the archaeological crypt, and have a look at the remains of the heart of Paris.
3. Square Viviani-Montebello and Eglise Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre
The Viviani-Montebello garden sits along the Seine and offers great views of Notre Dame. Do sit under the leaning locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), lovingly propped up by concrete shores. It is said to have been planted around 1600 by Monsieur Robin, royal gardener, making it the city’s oldest tree.
The garden leads to the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. This church is one of the oldest in Paris. It was built on a former Merovingian pilgrimage site between the 12th and 13th centuries. The building was later modified at different times until the 19th century. Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre was a Roman Catholic church until 1889 when it became a Melkite Greek Catholic church. When visiting the Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, look out for the carvings of harpies, winged Greek mythological creatures, at the top of the columns. The church is also famous for its iconostasis, a wall covered with paintings of icons, dating back to 1900.
4. Thermes de Cluny
The Thermes de Cluny were Lutetia’s bath complex. They were built in the 3rd century, when the civilized Romans brought their ideas on personal hygiene to Gaul’s barbarian tribes. In the 14th century, the bath remains were partially integrated into the Hôtel de Cluny. Today, the Hôtel de Cluny is home to the Museum of the Middle Ages. It houses a collection of Medieval objects, including the intriguing Dame à la licorne -The lady and the Unicorn- tapestries. After this foray into the past, make sure you head for the adjoining Medieval-inspired garden and recently refurbished playground.
5. La Sorbonne
La Sorbonne University was founded in 1253, by theologian Robert de Sorbon. It was part of the medieval University of Paris. The current buildings, except for the 17th century Chapel facing the place de la Sorbonne, date back to the late 19th century, when the Sorbonne was rebuilt. In 1968, student riots spilled out into the surrounding Latin Quarter, and eventually led to nationwide strikes. Make sure you philosophise as you wander around the Sorbonne (the buildings are closed to the public). Depending on the students’ political / social agenda, you might catch a whiff of the “Mai 68” revolutionary spirit. If not, you can part with a few euros and have a scholarly espresso in one of the many cafés.
6. Le Panthéon
The Panthéon was built in the second half of the 18th century, and was at first intended to be a church in honour of Sainte Geneviève, patron saint of Paris. The building, designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, caused many heated debates at the time : the triple dome was thought by some to be too heavy and it was said it would tumble down… But that was just the beginning of the Panthéon saga… By the time the building was finished, it was the French Revolution, and the Panthéon was declared a mausoleum for outstanding Frenchmen, instead of a church.
In the 19th century, the mausoleum was turned into a church, then a mausoleum again, and later a church once more. Nowadays -and ever since 1895- the Panthéon is a mausoleum for “les grands hommes”, great Frenchmen, and two women mind you, who served the nation. Take in the Panthéon’s schizophrenic history and architectural creativeness while admiring (a copy of) Léon Foucault’s pendulum, oscillating proof of planet Earth’s rotation.
7. Eglise Saint-Etienne-du-Mont
The Church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont is located to the North-East of the Panthéon, on the Montagne Sainte Geneviève. The current building dates back to the 15th century, and was constructed on the site of a chapel of the Sainte Geneviève abbey. Saint Geneviève’s relics are kept here. Saint-Etienne-du-Mont is also special from an architectural point of view : the nave is curved, and the church is home to Paris’ last remaining choir screen.
Head to Rue Mouffetard either via either (8) or (9)
8. Place de l’Estrapade
Enjoy this pleasant little open space and bubbling fountain, and do not think too much about it’s gruesome history. L’estrapade -or strappato- was in fact a type of torture where the victim was suspended by the hands, after having his arms tied behind his back… Louis XIII banned this form of torture in the 17th century.
9. Place sur la rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève
Along rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève, in front of the former site of Ecole Polytechnique is a small and pleasant square. The Ecole Polytechnique, an engineering school, also known as l’X, was established in 1794 and later became a military school. Cool off at the square’s fountain and if you are lucky, catch the cherry trees in bloom.
10. Rue Mouffetard
The rue Mouffetard already existed in the 1st century, and was part of the Roman road linking Paris to Orléans. Some claim the name Mouffetard comes from “Mont-Cétard”, as this thoroughfare was known in the 8th century. “Mouffetard” might also have derived from “Faubourg Saint Médard”, following the name of the church that sits at the lower end of the rue Mouffetard today. Rue Mouffetard is a lively neighbourhood, with many shops, restaurants and cafés. Whether you are into fresh produce markets, laid back cafés or relaxed nightlife, be sure to hit “la Mouff”.
11. Place de la Contrescarpe
Along the rue Mouffetard sits the Place de la Contrescarpe with its many cafés and a few intriguing names on the facades.
12. Les Arènes de Lutèce
Les Arènes, a Roman amphitheatre, were built during the 1st century. During the construction of the Wall of Philippe-Auguste in the early 13th century, les Arènes were filled in. It was not until the 19th century, when the rue Monge was built, that les Arènes were “discovered”, and restoration works started. The wild animals, gladiators and civilised citizens have long disappeared. Today come mingle with the pétanque aficionados or aspiring teenage football stars. There also is a good-sized playground that gets very busy on sunny afternoons : let the kindergarden lions loose!
13. La Grande Mosquée de Paris
La Grande Mosquée de Paris, France’s biggest mosque, was opened in 1926. The mudéjar style building has pleasant gardens and courtyards, as well as a main prayer hall, a madrasa and a library. Craving for a lip-sticking sweet mint tea or couscous? In need of a vigorous body exfoliation and steam bath? Make your way to the café/ restaurant / hammam entrance on rue Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire. For more tips, check out our guided visit of Paris Great Mosque.
14. Jardin des Plantes
Tired of urban rambling? Cannot deal with another cobblestone? Head to the Jardin des Plantes. This Botanical Garden was founded in 1635, as the king’s medicinal garden. Over the years, different gardens and buildings were added, mostly dedicated to the study of plants, animals and earth sciences. There is a garden for every mood in the Jardin des Plantes : enjoy a stroll in the formal garden, sniff about the rose garden or climb up the labyrinth.
Had enough of Paris’ gray skies and neatly trimmed trees? Travel to hot and humid lands in the greenhouses or yodel in the alpine garden. And if that still ain’t enough, test your botanical knowledge by squinting at the tiny plant tags, or hunt for the gingko tree (Gingko biloba) and the Lebanon Cedar (Cedrus libani). There also is a small zoo on site, la Ménagerie, that dates back to 1794. Today, art déco buildings and enclosures house some 1800 animals, from spiders to orangutans. For even more on animals and earth sciences, make sure you visit the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle’s different galleries.
15. Eglise Saint-Médard
The Church of Saint-Médard was built between the 15th and the 18th centuries on the site of a 9th century chapel. It was here that the rue Mouffetard crossed the river Bièvre, one of the Seine’s tributaries. There is a busy and colourful albeit expensive daily market that stretches up the rue Mouffetard from the Church of Saint Médard. Dance aficionados also hit the pavement and sway to guinguette tunes on weekends.